Sunday, April 6, 2014

Listening for Elijah: Safe Places, Dangerous Possibilities (Haftarah for Shabbat HaGadol)

This coming Shabbat, the last before the arrival of Pesach, is known as Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath.  It takes its name from a passage in the special haftarah for the occasion, from the book of Malachi: “Behold, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Eternal One. . . and he shall turn the hearts of the parents to the children and the hearts of the children to the parents.”

This beautiful vision of Elijah bringing generational reconciliation provides the foundation for the traditional seder practice of pouring a cup for Elijah and opening the door to invite him to our seder tables.  I see this ritual as an extraordinary opportunity for learning and listening.

How might we make our Passover seders into transformative experiences that bridge the generations?  We could begin by creating environments in which all questions are welcome, where deep and integral conversation is the ultimate goal.  It is not enough to merely read and sing the haggadah’s ancient words; we must, instead, use them as a launching point for our own journeys from narrowness and constriction (known in Hebrew as Mitzrayim, the word for “Egypt”) toward liberation, each in accordance with our own life circumstances, young and old alike.  As the haggadah itself teaches: “In every generation, it is incumbent upon each of us to see ourselves as if we, ourselves, went out of Egypt.”

Professor Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, writes:
“Rituals like the seder are designed to say difficult things indirectly.  They get us thinking, in safe places, about dangerous possibilities.  Surrounded with good food and people who love us, we can retell the sacred story, with all its curses and blessings, in a way that takes the story forward.  We need new questions at Passover, and new answers. . . For redemption to take place, there must be a great deal “new under the sun” and we must help to create it.  New questions from a new generation are a beginning.”

This year, may we all invite Elijah’s powerful presence—his promise of reconciliation, renewal and hope—by sharing our fears and hopes and dreams across the generations, and weaving them into new stories of liberation, together.

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